Over the history of the Church, many believers have championed a radical understanding of the depths of God’s grace. Effectively beginning with Ray Stanford and Zane Hodges (although the roots run back to Lewis Sperry Chafer and further), the Free Grace movement has attempted to do the same in recent times.
The best of the Free Grace tradition has a well-deserved seat at the table. Free Grace is above all a theology of assurance, of the freeness of God’s grace and the incredible costliness of discipleship. In addition, Free Grace offers some maverick exegesis that’s a welcome breath of fresh air, and a compelling understanding of personal eschatology. On this page, I am seeking to provide a few starting points for someone outside the Free Grace movement to benefit from the best of our tradition, and some promising directions for further development for those inclined to carry the torch further.
A Theology of Assurance
Contrary to the popular belief that God is waiting for you to do good things before He receives you into His family, Free Grace has championed the grace of God. He receives you simply because you ask. Anyone who wants to be part of the family, will be, and God isn’t going to hold “Maybe you’re in, maybe not” over your head like some people would. You don’t earn it, you don’t prove it, and you can know–not think, not guess, not hope–know that you have eternal life.
Once you’ve believed the gospel, your status is never in doubt. You have eternal life right now, and you always will (that’s why it’s called eternal life!) God has graciously removed the question of your eternal destiny from the table forever. You are his child, period. The remaining question is, what kind of son or daughter are you going to be?
People who are new to God’s grace often wonder, where’s the motivation to live a holy life? Shouldn’t there be at least a little fear of hell, just to keep the unruly folks in line? Here’s the thing: it might be possible to scare people into following some rules, but it’s not possible to scare someone into the kind of life that God wants you to live, a life driven by gratitude and love for the Father.
By holding to this strong view of assurance, Free Grace unmasks the ugly agreement between Arminianism and late-Puritan Calvinism in difficult pastoral situations where a believer has fallen into serious sin. While these views posture themselves as opposites because they disagree about whether post-new-birth good works certify (Calvinism) or maintain (Arminianism) the believer’s salvation, they agree in theory that a person lacking such works is not saved.
Practically speaking, the pastoral result is ugly: say we’re talking about a Christian with a serious porn problem. In the Arminian interpretation, he’s losing his salvation by succumbing to his addiction. In the late-Puritan Calvinist interpretation, he’s demonstrating that he was never really saved to start with. In practice, that means his battle with porn becomes a battle for assurance: when he’s doing ok, he feels like he’s going to heaven, and when he’s sinning, he’s afraid he’s going to hell. It’s a theological distinction without a pastoral difference–and it doesn’t work.
With either of these approaches, at the moment when a believer most needs to be assured of God’s love and provision, at the very moment when it most matters to assure him that he is righteous in Christ–at that moment, these folks pry off the poor fellow’s breastplate of righteousness and stab him through the heart with accusations that he is not Christ’s, that no son of God could behave in such a way, and so on. This is theology that does the devil’s work for him, and to hell with that!
(Luther and Calvin themselves were not like that, by the way, and I’ve little quarrel with their modern descendants who actually follow their example. Unfortunately, they are few and far between.) Free Grace, in contrast, assures the believer that he is a part of the family, challenges him to ask for the power of the Spirit, which God will freely give, and encourages him to live on that basis. We believe, in other words, that God is a good Father, and He gives us the power to live well.
A good brief starting point would be Six Secrets of the Christian Life by Zane Hodges.
If you want to dig a little deeper, Grace Awakening by Charles Swindoll and Absolutely Free by Zane Hodges will give you more. Hodges focuses principally on the new birth; Swindoll goes deeper into what a grace-based life looks like. If you’d like a swan dive into the deep end, try Free Grace Soteriology by Dave Anderson, and edited by James Reitman.
Maverick Exegesis (and an Antidote to Theological Excesses)
Clear-eyed exegesis is always worth engaging for its own sake, but those who are looking for an exegetically based antidote to the pastoral faults and excesses of Arminianism or late-Puritan Calvinism will find a lot of help in the Free Grace tradition. Leading Free Grace thinkers are often willing to depart from theologically-driven consensus, asking further questions of the text, and looking carefully for answers. Even if you don’t agree with their answers, you will find their questions helpful.
Zane Hodges and John Niemela are both worth paying careful attention to in this regard. Hodges tended to stick to devotional-level commentary in his published work, but in personal conversation I found him to have defense in depth for anything he said. Of course he’s no longer around to talk to, but when I disagree with him, I take that as a cue to dig deeper. I don’t always come around to his way of thinking, but I am rarely disappointed by an inquiry into why he might have taken a particular position.
There’s no question that John Niemela is the premier exegete of the FG movement. John has provided useful work on a number of difficult passages. He’s the kind of man who will do a word study on a conjunction that occurs 700+ times, just to establish if there’s a pattern to when it’s used in a particular way. (Yes, he really did that; I was there. The results of that study are in his work on Revelation 3:10.) As a trainer of exegetes, he is simply without peer. (And yeah, I’m biased. But he is, in fact, that good.)
My own Dead Man’s Faith challenges the consensus on some aspects of Ephesians 2. Traditional Calvinist interpretations don’t fare so well when you read the passage carefully in context, and Arminian “prevenient grace” readings fare little better. The problem turns out to be the assumptions that Calvinist and Arminian readings both make. (In other words, I’m not finding a mediating position between those two poles; I’m disagreeing with them where they agree with each other.)
Zane Hodges’ commentary on Romans, and devotional commentaries on James and the Johannine epistles are well worth your time; commentaries or essays on several other books are also available. Zane’s Free Grace Primer addresses a number of key passages around assurance and personal eschatology. Jody Dillow’s Final Destiny: The Future Reign of the Servant Kings contains careful exegesis of a wide array of passages on its subject, and I highly recommend it. Bob Wilkin also has a worthwhile book titled Is Calvinism Biblical? that addresses some key passages.
One popular Free Grace speaker used to enjoy scandalizing audiences by starting his sermons with, “I don’t want to go to heaven!” He would proceed to elaborate on the New Earth as our ultimate destiny, with all the attendant glories. If you want to know why heaven won’t be boring, this is good stuff to look into.
Secrets of the Vine by Bruce Wilkinson is a good starting point. Final Destiny: The Future Reign of the Servant Kings by Joseph C. Dillow will take you as far into the study of personal eschatology as you would ever wish to go. And then some. It’s massive, but well worth your effort.
The classic Free Grace teaching on personal eschatology really sits up and sings when you marry it to an understanding of the present and future Kingdom of God (which they mostly don’t). It’s an area I’d like to write more about in the future, and there will be links here when I get to it.
Further Up and Further In
Grace-driven living leads us to a different approach to community. We know there’s no sin a believer can’t commit; we aren’t going to get scandalized when you’re struggling with something. The way Scripture teaches us to live is called “walking in the light” in 1 John…and almost everybody misreads that passage. For some reason we tend to think “walking in the light” means doing the right things and not sinning. But look at what the passage says:
If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.1 John 1:7
If “walking in the light” means not sinning, what sin is He cleansing us from?
No, walking in the light means not hiding. Live your life in the open, where people can see you. Tell your brothers and sisters what’s going on with you, and get their help: “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” Likewise, invest yourself in others’ growth: “Consider one another in order to stir up love and good deeds.” That word translated “consider” means “study, scrutinize.” Invest some time and effort to really see your brothers and sisters. Let them see you.
The fear is that they will see your sin–and they will, too! The fear is that if you don’t hide your sin, it will blow up the relationship. But look again at 1 John 1:7: God promises exactly the opposite. If you will live openly with one another, if you will not hide from each other, then you will have fellowship with one another. What happens with the sin? Jesus will cleanse you from all of it.
Like Adam and Eve, we want to hide our sin. We stitch together fig leaves in a frantic effort to conceal our shame. But God came down into the garden and called out, “Adam! Where are you?” Today, Christ seeks you through His Body. In your fellow believers, Christ is truly present, and He is present to them in you. You have the Holy Spirit: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.” God has given us the ministry of reconciliation. Let’s be about it.